- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
As readers of the New York Times (and Jewish Week) already know, the Board of Trustees at City University of New York voted to table the awarding of an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner after one member of the board, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, accused Kushner of supposedly "disparaging" Israel. Kushner has been critical of some Israeli policies-which hardly makes him unique among human beings, or among Jews, or even among Israelis. But none of his comments on these issues are outside the bounds of civil discourse or worthy of censure, especially by an institution that is supposed to be committed to freedom of thought and the open exchange of ideas. If you’re curious, you can read Kushner’s response here. Wiesenfeld is unrepentant, by the way, and defends his attack here. For an update on the evolving situation, see Justin Elliott here.
I have only two points to make about this incident, which one of the many attempts by self-appointed "defenders" of Israel to control discourse on this issue.
First, the main reason that hardliners like Mr. Weisenfeld go after someone like Kushner is deterrence. By denying critics of Israeli policy any honors, they seek to discourage others from expressing opinions that challenge the prevailing "pro-Israel" orthodoxy to which Weisenfeld is committed. Kushner was not nominated for an honorary degree for his views on Middle East politics; he was obviously nominated because he is an exceptionally talented and accomplished playwright and literary figure. But if someone like him can also be critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and receive an honorary degree, then — horrors! — other people who feel similarly might be empowered to speak out themselves and pretty soon such comments will cease to be taboo. People like Mr. Weisenfeld don’t want that; they want people who do not share their views to be constantly aware of the price they might pay for expressing them. And it never seems to occur to them that maybe Kushner’s views might be both more humane but also better for Israel than the position that Weisenfeld apparently holds.
Second, what this incident also reveals is the reflexive timidity of many academic organizations. There doesn’t seem to have been any sort of organized campaign to deny Kushner the honorary degree; instead, the board voted to table the nomination after one member (Weisenfeld) made his disparaging remarks. I’ve spent more than a quarter century in academia, including seven years as an administrator, and the board’s reaction doesn’t surprise me a bit. Despite their public commitment to free speech and open discourse, nothing terrifies deans and trustees more than angry donors, phone calls from reporters, and anything that looks controversial. By tabling the nomination, they undoubtedly thought they were avoiding a potentially uncomfortable controversy.
But in this case the CUNY board blew it big-time, both because Weisenfeld’s accusations were off-base but also because they would not have been grounds for denying Kushner an honorary degree even if they had been true. And meekly caving as they did is contrary to the principles of intellectual freedom that universities are supposed to defend. The end result is that this incident will get a lot more attention than awarding the degree would have garnered (Kushner already has several), and the board’s shameful lack of vertebrae has been publicly exposed.
And why does this matter for foreign policy? Because as John Mearsheimer and I wrote a few years ago: "America will be better served if its citizens were exposed to the range of views about Israel common to most of the world’s democracies, including Israel itself. . . Both the United States and Israel face vexing challenges. . .and neither country will benefit by silencing those who support a new approach. This does not mean that critics are always right, of course, but their suggestions deserves at least as much consideration as the failed policies that key groups in the [Israel] lobby have backed in recent years" (pp. 351-52).